Most politicians and party leaders fighting to win over Latino voters have probably never heard of labor organizer Eliseo Medina, but they should have.
The international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union is the engine behind a massive Latino voter mobilization and turnout effort that could prove decisive in 2012.
A Mexican immigrant and former California grape picker, Medina has toiled for more than a decade to boost political engagement among the nation's 50.5 million Latinos. Though turnout among Hispanics still lags behind other voting blocs, Medina's allies say this could be his breakthrough year.
"If Latino turnout is sizable, and if Latino voters are critical, he's going to be the most influential player in American politics that people don't know," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a progressive immigrant reform group that's worked with Medina, who cut his teeth as an activist in the 1960s alongside labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.
The number of Latinos voting will increase to 12.2 million this fall, up from 10 million in 2008, according to projections by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The likely beneficiary will be President Barack Obama, who leads GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney among Latino voters by a more than 3-to-1 ratio, according to Latino Decisions.
But while Romney has drawn Latino fire for opposing the DREAM Act and endorsing self-deportation, Obama has disappointed many Latinos by failing to fulfill his immigration reform promises. Obama's June executive order to halt deportation of some young undocumented immigrants won him some points with Latinos. But it's unclear whether that will be enough to boost Latino turnout beyond its customarily low 50 percent.
Medina, 66, insists that his goal isn't to promote one party or candidate over the other but to convince Latinos to become citizens, to register and to vote. This year his top tool is Mi Familia Vota, a 501(c)(4) social welfare group that's working with 150 community-based organizations, including business leaders, civic groups and churches. Mi Familia Vota and its allies have set out to register 650,000 Latino voters. With an affiliated 501(c)(3) charity, Mi Familia Vota will spend as much as $7 million in this election cycle.
"This is strictly nonpartisan," Medina said of Mi Familia Vota, which grew out of a similar campaign launched a dozen years ago to organize Los Angeles workers. "We tell people: Here's the agenda, and it's very clear. Immigration reform, education, health care, good jobs. That's what we're for. Now you look at the candidates and the parties and decide who best will represent those views and vote."